Reverend Lim Hyeon-soo, of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church of Toronto, arrived across the Chinese border into North Korea on January 31 for a humanitarian visit, and was scheduled to return on February 4. For nearly a month there was no news of him, but this week the Canadian government told Lim’s family that Pyongyang has contacted them and confirmed that they are holding him.
“We are aware of a Canadian citizen detained in North Korea,” said Caitlin Workman, spokesperson at the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Workman also said that Canada counsels all Canadians against traveling to North Korea and does not have a consulate in the country.
Another ministry spokeswoman, Erica Meekes, underscored that “since there is no official Canadian government office in this country,” Ottawa’s ability to act in this case “is extremely limited.”
Though born on the Korean Peninsula, Lim is a Canadian citizen. He went to the Asian country for a humanitarian visit, something he is used to doing. The pastor has made more than 100 trips of this sort during the Kim regime, and has been described as “entirely non-political.”
His visits have all been carried out on humanitarian grounds, especially in the service of the elderly and orphans. Lim helped run a nursing home, a nursery, and an orphanage in the Rajin region of the country.
Lim’s disappearance has caused consternation in his community. The spokesman of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church of Toronto, Lisa Pak, said: “We do not want to cause unnecessary hysteria. We just want to know if he’s okay.”
Diplomatic sources have said that citizens of countries “not directly opposed” to the North Korean regime, if arrested, are usually released quickly.
The Australian missionary John Short, for example, was stopped on February 16, 2014 on charges of “distributing religious material.” On March 3 he was released “for humanitarian reasons.” With US citizens it is another story. The last two Americans who wound up in the hands of Pyongyang were released only after years and thanks to intense diplomatic activity.
Reverend Chun Ki-Won, the director of a South Korean Christian organization that helps rescue and resettle North Korean refugees, said that sources had informed him that Reverend Lim had been called to Pyongyang on arrival in the country for unknown reasons.
Chun said that some of Lim’s projects were tied to associates of Jang Song-Thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was executed in December 2013 on charges of treason and corruption.
According to Chun, Lim “used to work with Jang Song Thaek and his line of people.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.